Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Sometimes I’m asked whether there’s a dichotomy in my job title: Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Am I presiding over an academic house divided? Can we help Florida farmers produce more food and simultaneously protect the health of soil, water, people and animals?
We can. We do. We will.
By “we,” I mean the Florida Farm Bureau and UF/IFAS together. Thethis month exemplifies this cooperation. It celebrates a kind of thinking that looks at yield as the outcome of how plants, people and places interact.
Two generations ago, Norman Borlaug transformed agriculture worldwide. He is credited with saving a billion lives by increasing agricultural productivity. I was fortunate to have met him a number of times while I was at Iowa State University.
Borlaug relied on giving plants more food, water and protection from pests. He also relied heavily on plant breeding to develop more cultivars. His approach considered what inputs produced the highest output, whether at the farm gate or in the calorie count.
With Borlaug’s Green Revolution now some 50 years old, we need a sequel.
UF/IFAS was founded in Borlaug’s heyday. Our name reflects those times, with its omission of natural resources.
Yet today we’re becoming a global leader in agroecology. Through that discipline, we simultaneously address production, environment and society.
Diane Rowland in our Agronomy Department leads a worldwide agroecology network. She has established master’s and Ph.D. programs in agroecology that are among the nation’s first.
Agroecology is the guiding approach behind Rowland’s new Center for Stress Resilient Agriculture. The center will prepare graduate students for careers in agriculture through a training program that puts them on your farms, in your packinghouses and in your offices for firsthand experience in the people side of the plant and animal business.
In class, we’ll instruct students in a wide variety of disciplines so they come out part agronomist, part engineer and part ecologist – a multidisciplinary team all in one head.
One of the center’s first research projects assembles a team to consider the threat aflatoxin presents to peanuts. These toxins have been linked to 25 percent of new liver cancer cases worldwide. They thrive in stressed environmental conditions. This intersection of ecology, production and human health is where the lens of agroecology helps get at how to keep Florida’s food supply safe.
By monitoring environmental stress and the plant’s own stress signals, this risk of contamination can be monitored. Our agroecology team can develop an early warning system that prevents a contamination outbreak that causes illness and panicked headlines about recalls – and ultimately costs our farmers and threatens their livelihoods.
UF/IFAS and the Florida Farm Bureau must build on Borlaug’s legacy. Although we seek to protect the environment for its own sake, neglecting environmental considerations can hit you where it hurts – smaller yields in the long run.
Agroecology doesn’t pit the environment and production against one another – it seeks to balance the two for the ultimate benefit of both. It’s another lens through which to view that complex relationship.
If you look through that lens, it just may show you the potential for a transformation in how we feed the world that leads to that second Green Revolution we’re going to need to feed 10 billion people by mid-century.